Much like our planning for the Swiss Riviera, when it came to booking a stay in the Swiss Alps we were stymied by the myriad possibilities. Every little town seemed to have its own pros and cons and it was hard to figure out just which one was going to suit us best.
There are actually several regions that make up the “Swiss Alps.” In this post I’m talking about the Alps in the Berner Oberland region which is in central Switzerland and considered the most quintessentially “Swiss” of the Alpine regions.
Here is our overview of where we stayed, where we wished we’d stayed, and where we would never, ever stay. (And a few other nice towns in between.)
Interlaken is the “big town” of the Swiss Alps. It is large and situated at a crossroads where you can easily get to and from other smaller towns. Friends of ours spent two weeks in the Alps this summer and based themselves from Interlaken for its easy access to other places. That worked well for them although they said Interlaken itself wasn’t super special unless you love high end shopping. We didn’t stop or stay in Interlaken so can’t give a first hand account of it. But like my mention of Lausanne on the Swiss Riviera, I didn’t want you to think I’d forgotten it!
Everything I read about Lauterbrunnen made me think it was a super small one-horse town. I guess it kind of is but when you compare it to the mountainside villages like Wengen and Mürren, it doesn’t seem so paltry anymore.
Lauterbrunnen sits at the bottom of a valley. Lots of articles said ‘don’t stay here, stay on the mountain where your views are better because you can look down and over the valley.’ I get that. However, the views looking UP into the mountains are really nothing to sneeze at. Lauterbrunnen has the added bonus of being a good train station hub to get to other parts of the mountain. There are also some wonderful waterfalls you can walk to from here, like Staubbach Falls and Trümmelbach Falls.
Like Gruyères, there is just one main street that goes through town with most of the shops and restaurants. But unlike Gruyères, this street is quite long and if you walk far enough it turns into a beautiful country path that takes you right by the waterfalls, and alongside a bubbling mountain stream, and then eventually to the Stechelberg cable car where you can take a lift to Gimmelwald, Mürren, Birg, and on to the Schilthorn and Piz Gloria if you’d like.
Lauterbrunnen is one of the towns where cars are allowed. If you are driving to the Alps, there is a car park where you park your car in Lauterbrunnen before making your way by train or cable car up the mountain to the carless towns. We didn’t stay in Lauterbrunnen but I would definitely consider it next time. It is convenient and quaint and the two biggest drawbacks I read about – the cars and the valley views – were not an issue at all. (Small caveat: there was a marathon going when we were there so I’m not sure if the street was closed especially for that, making the car traffic much lower than normal.)
Wengen is where we actually stayed. This is a little mountainside town that you get to by taking a short train ride from Lauterbrunnen. Wengen is very cute and has a few small grocery stores, several restaurants and bars, a fair amount of shops, and tons of chalets. I imagine this is the sort of small Swiss village where a Hemingway character would spend the winter writing and skiing, and having a dramatic affair with his best friend’s wife.
We were here before ski season, but we could tell that the town was preparing for imminent bustling winter activity. No cars are allowed in Wengen so it’s very peaceful. Although “no cars” really means no private cars. There are still some little trucks on the roads making deliveries and stuff, but it’s hardly noticeable.
The minute we stepped out of the cable car gondola in Mürren our hearts were taken. There was just something about Mürren that was more soulful, more primitive, more…fresh (??) than Wengen or the other towns. It almost felt like stepping back in time to what one of these towns may have felt like fifty or sixty years ago. It is one of the locations where the James Bond movie, ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ was filmed in the late 60s, so recalling images from that film might have had something to do with our “flashback” feelings.
Mürren is quite a bit higher up than Wengen so the mountains seemed so much closer and more omnipresent.
We had the best salad of our trip in Mürren at the Hotel Bellevue. The terrace was spacious and offered amazing views and the waiter was very kind. After ten minutes in Mürren Brian and I both admitted we would have definitely stayed here had we but known!
We have friends who used to live in Switzerland and Gimmelwald was their top choice for where to stay. We didn’t actually visit but the gondola ride to Mürren goes past Gimmelwald so we got a fair look at it. Talk about a one-horse town! I’m not even sure it had a horse.
If you want super quaint, quiet, and out of the way, you’ll probably love Gimmelwald. To be honest, one reason we didn’t consider staying here even though our friends highly recommended it, is because when they were telling us which of the two guest houses they liked, they happened to mention that the shared bathroom was quite nice. Wha? No! No no no no no no….
Now for our least favorite, Grindelwald. Even though it sounds very similar to Gimmelwald, the two places couldn’t be more different. Gimmelwald is tiny and has no cars (and a dearth of private bathrooms even!) whereas Grindelwald was full of cars, tour buses, and tourists. It felt big and commercial, like a touristy ski town in not a good way.
Like Lauterbrunnen, Grindelwald also sits in a valley. However, the valley is much wider so the views up towards the mountains just don’t seem as imposing, even though from Grindelwald you can see the three famous mountain peaks Jungfrau, Mönch, and Eiger. Brian and I knew we were supposed to be impressed. I mean, when your mountains have names, you perk your eyes up. But I still thought the views in Lauterbrunnen were more magical. (And you can get better views of those peaks from some of the hikes. It’s not like you have to go to Grindelwald for them.)
We ate lunch in Grindelwald at an underwhelming restaurant and then headed on to the First walk, which was awesome and I’ll tell you about it in another post about hiking. Verdict: we did not like this town. Would never stay here.
And well, that’s it! I mean, those aren’t the only towns in the Bernese Alps, but that’s our two centimes on the ones we happened upon. 🙂